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You can also use hand soap as body wash if you really wanted to. Tradol Limyingcharoen/Getty Images Plus
I've Always Wondered ...

Liquid hand soap vs. body wash: What’s the difference?

Janet Nguyen Jul 14, 2023
You can also use hand soap as body wash if you really wanted to. Tradol Limyingcharoen/Getty Images Plus

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener Twinkle Kang-Stewart from Oxnard, California, asks:

Is there a formulaic difference in liquid hand soap versus liquid body wash, or is it a soap industry marketing ploy?

If you’ve ever wondered whether you could use body wash on your hands or hand soap on your body, experts say yes, you should generally be safe. 

“There’s no danger, assuming you’re not allergic to any of the components of it, like the fragrances or any of the preservatives,” said Jason Miller, dermatologist and the medical director of the Schweiger Dermatology Group. “They can be used interchangeably for cleaning.”

Bill Wuest, a chemistry professor at Emory University, said almost all soaps are made of molecules known as surfactants. 

“A lot of the cleaning products out there — whether it be body wash, hand soap, detergent, shampoo, laundry detergent, things like that — all have the same basic chemical components,” he explained.

Surfactants form into spheres called micelles that are able to trap dirt and grease, and are removed when you rinse with water, the trade group American Cleaning Institute says on its website. 

When you rub your hands together or use a washcloth on your body, the motion helps the surfactant remove the bacteria or unwanted organisms from your skin, explained Yvette McCarter, director of the microbiology lab at the University of Florida Health Jacksonville. 

“It’s actually the friction that gets rid of the organisms,” McCarter noted. “So if I just slather soap on my hands and rinse them off, I haven’t really done a whole lot.”

But if liquid soap for hands and body are that similar, are their differences just labeling? While these products have the same chemical components, the thickness and amount of surfactants vary to address different parts of your body, experts said. And sometimes products have additional benefits.

A body wash might have more emollients — substances that help moisturize your skin — because it’s going on more sensitive parts of your body, said McCarter.

“Hand washes tend to be a little bit thinner and a little bit less foamy,” said Miller, the dermatologist. “They don’t have to be spread very far; they just have to cover a small area.” 

In contrast, body washes have more surfactants, which help it become foamier, Miller explained. That makes the soap easier to spread because it has to cover a bigger part of the body.

So Miller said he wouldn’t quite call the different labeling a marketing ploy.

“But there definitely is a marketing component to it and probably a cost component too, because body washes tend to be a little bit more expensive,” he said. “People, when they’re using hand washes, are able to get a little more bang for their buck. [They’re] getting a thinner product that will still clean their hands. I think most people are gonna wash their hands more often than they wash their body every day.” 

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